Tony Cummings spoke to Tunbridge Wells-based singer, songwriter, author and teacher GRAHAM KENDRICK
Graham Kendrick is stood on main stage of Big Church Day Out North. He looks tanned and spritely. He's not been billed in the programme to appear on Mainstage and his impromptu performance of his biggest ever hit, "Shine Jesus Shine", catches the crowd by surprise. It's announced that in a little over two hours, Graham will be leading worship at BCDO's Tearfund Tea Tent for a special Songs Of Praise filming for BBC TV. But as it turns out, this lightning Mainstage appearance is less a commercial for another BCDO attraction and more an act of prophetic significance for the British Church. For in a moving and transparently sincere prayer, the acknowledged Father of Modern Worship prays for the hundreds who have raised their hands in response to the enquiry as to whether there were some in the throng who felt they were being called to become worship leaders in their churches. No better man could have been chosen to pray such a prayer.
Many historians would acknowledge Graham Kendrick as the most influential hymnwriter of the last 100 years while he has long been applauded as the father figure of the whole modern worship movement. There's hardly a nation on earth which doesn't have churches where Kendrick's classics like "Knowing You Jesus", "The Servant King", "Amazing Love", "Meekness And Majesty", "Shine Jesus Shine" and "Thank You For The Cross" aren't being sung. Those who might have thought that the 67-year-old singer/songwriter was now going to rest on his laurels will have been impressed by Kendrick's four singles/videos which have emerged in the last year and now with the release, through Integrity Music, of his 'Keep The Banner Flying High' live worship album.
'Keep The Banner Flying High' was recorded and filmed at Rosehill School Theatre in Tunbridge Wells and produced by Kevan Frost, whose decades long music experience has seen him work with everybody from Phatfish to Boy George. The band accompanying Graham on the album is truly top-rate and features such friends and stalwarts as Mark Edwards (keyboards, accordion), Matt Weeks (guitar, mandolin), Raul D'Oliveira (trumpet, flugel horn) and guest vocalists Jake Isaac and Mairi Neeves. Writing about the album on the sleeve, Graham and Jill Kendrick acknowledged all their helpers, "What a privilege to work with you on this recording! It was moving to look around at faces of friends with whom we worship regularly and musicians with whom we've journeyed for so many years. You all gave your best with true hearts and sincere enthusiasm in both public roles and behind the scenes." The album is crammed with fine new Kendrick songs ranging from two great co-writes with Jake Isaac, "As In Heaven" and "I Saw The Lord", and a memorable re-imagining of the hymn words by the 18th century's William Cowper "God Moves In A Mysterious Way".
Graham explained how some of the collaborations on the album came about. He said, "I'm often invited to speak to Christian musicians and worship leaders and songwriters. I'm still writing songs; I'm still doing it. Many of the songs I write these days, I sit down with people of my own children's age, the next generation, and we do it together. It's a very nice thing to do but it's also an important thing to do. Psalm 71 talks about one generation telling the story to the next generation. And I think every generation has that job to do. You speak to your own generation but you also speak to the next generation and you try to pass on what you know, what you've learnt. As a songwriter obviously that's one of the best ways I can do it."
One of the best songs on the album is "Praise Him Moon And Stars". I asked him how that song came into being. "For me, songs have a convoluted journey. This one began with a sound I was getting on the guitar, first of all, using two capos and a dropped E string. . . that's for guitar nerds. Anyway, that created a kind of very resonant sound that was inspiring me and I started fiddling around with melodic ideas. At the same time I'd been looking at an old hymn lyric which begins with the words that this present song begins with which is 'Sweet is the work, my God and King, to praise your name, give thanks and sing'. I'd have to check, I can't remember now if it was Isaac Watts or John Newton. That became the starting point for the song. It started off a lot more reflectively. But as I developed it and started to find the melody it seemed to work better at that rhythmic pace. I'm sure that's how it goes with many songwriters and creative people. You experiment, you try this way and that and after a while you decide whether it's worth pursuing. So it was one of those. I began to try it out, played it to one or two friends and it took shape. I usually take songs through several versions; I tried it with a bridge and without a bridge. For me it's kind of a process of elimination. You just write something good and then try to make it better. But I think what I loved about it was the simplicity and a kind of bright joyfulness and it made it through. Because for every song I record and publish, there are several songs that don't make it."
Did he really mean "several"? "Yes, I have heaps of what I call unfinished songs. I think that's just the way it is with any creative person. On one level it almost seems wasteful but I think if you were to go to a painter's studio, for every finished canvas you'd probably see half a dozen leaning against the wall that were abandoned and tried again. But then I sometimes think, well, there might be a good reason why that song was never finished. Actually, it does happen that I work on a song and I'm not satisfied with it and then it turns into something else or maybe even years later, on a different idea, I find I've handled the subject in a better way. So the temptation for me is to keep on working away at a song when I should abandon it. Because there may be a better one and I've just got trapped inside this one idea and I ought to try a completely different angle. It's a mystery. To me, it's amazing that I finish anything, actually."
A song on 'Keep The Banner. . ." which Graham did eventually finish, with the help of Keith and Kristyn Getty, is "My Worth Is Not In What I Own". Graham wrote on his website, "Lyricists are always on the lookout for a big idea, a concept or phrase that might just have a song hidden inside it. Like the sculptor running their fingers over a rough block of marble and laying out their tools, or a potter feeling the weight and texture of a fresh lump of wet clay, the imagination has to see something that doesn't yet exist. Some years ago I was struck by the simple phrase 'my worth is not in what I own' and sensed a 'big idea' in waiting. It is a theme I have explored before in songs, in fact one of my earliest performance songs is called 'How Much Do You Think You Are Worth', but here it came again and I saw a congregational song in potential. I made several attempts over several years to let loose that big idea, but during a writing session with Keith and Kristyn Getty I bounced my seed idea off them and the process began. The song went through numerous drafts and redrafts, but eventually it settled. From the first occasion it was sung it was clear that the theme resonated powerfully as people began to join in. We know that our culture calibrates human worth by measures of wealth and status, skills and achievement, beauty and youth, power and so on, but we don't always appreciate how deeply those values are ingrained into us and how effective they are in driving our behaviour. Christians are little different. We need to sing about our worth from God's perspective, not ours or our cultures, and God's perspective centres in on the cross.
"John Stott wrote, 'Our self is a complex entity of good and evil, glory and shame, of creation and fall.. . we are created, fallen and redeemed, then re-created in God's image. . . Standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of his love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing him to die.' William Temple wrote: 'My worth is what I am worth to God, and that is a marvellous great deal, for Christ died for me.' It has been a pleasure working together with the Gettys to bring this song from concept to reality and we hope that it will help many to sing themselves free from all that steals away the joy of being loved by God."
Many followers of Graham's multi-faceted ministry will be surprised that he now ministers at a COE church, Christchurch in Tunbridge Wells. I asked Graham what kind of people have found a spiritual home at Christchurch. He said, "I think if you were to do a survey in our church, you'd find a complete mixture of backgrounds. I think many of the old distinctions, rooted in a certain way of doing things, have gone. As I grew up, my father is a Baptist pastor and so it was a local Baptist chapel and down the road was an Anglican church and they did things completely differently. But now, I think, there are lots of similarities. You can go to churches with lots of different labels and there are common factors and ways of doing things. There is a liturgical element, particularly with communion and we have regular use of confession but apart from that we're a church that has a lot of sung worship. So we'll have a worship band and a whole chunk in the morning service of sung worship and prayer ministry; things that everybody is very familiar with these days."
Graham and I talk for a couple of minutes about our mutual hobby of collecting old hymnbooks. Out of that talk, I observed that Graham has been skilled as both a hymn writer and a modern worship composer. He responded, "I think it's just been my journey. The years when I took on most musical influence were in the '60s. I was growing up and listening to the Beatles and the pop music but at the same time I was attending a Baptist church and the Baptist hymnbook was what we sang from, most of what we sang was hymns. So I'm absorbing these different influences of hymns and the popular music of the day. I guess that tends to come out in my own writing. There are several things that work in all of this. Culture is a very powerful thing. A lot of contemporary worship music today is stylistically based on the music of bands like Coldplay in the '90s. There's quite an intense emotion in there and that's great; it's a great genre for certain kinds of expression. But it's not the whole story. I think music, as well as being a great way to express the deep emotions of the heart, it's also a great medium for carrying truth. Combining that with personal passion as well is what Charles Wesley was so superb at. One of the radical things in his day was that his songs were very personal. But also they were packed full with biblical references and his brother, John Wesley, would be very stringent about the doctrine. He'd sort of edit them, oh no, you can't put that word in there because blah, blah, blah. So you've got this amazing combination of poetry, theology and passion."
Warming to the theme of the hymns vs worship songs debate Graham continued, "We need lots of different kinds of songs. But I think if there's an area where we need more of a certain kind it is that area of content, strong content. With a good hymn you look at it and you think 'this is worth memorizing. This is so true and so well expressed that you could set it as a task in your Bible class'. You could say, 'Memorise this and this will help you understand an aspect of God.' I'd love to see much more of that. But at the same time, popular music obviously is relating to a lot of people who have grown up with very short attention spans because of the way the culture is and social media and everything we have today. It's no good churning out - we don't do that, 'churning' is the wrong word - [it's not good writing hymns where] people are never going to get past the second verse. We have to find that balance between what is rich content but also what people in the present day and age can actually absorb."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.